An "Ugly Climate Cover-up" in Switzerland

VERBIER, Switzerland (Reuters) - Global warming may be the last thing on the minds of extreme skiers speeding down the blustery cliff faces at Verbier-4 Vallees this winter. 

But looking down from the chic Swiss ski resort's 10,800-foot peak, Eric Balet, whose company runs the ski lifts, says climate change has become a business concern. 

The Tortin glacier topping Verbier used to stretch to the base of ski lifts and other paths, but Balet now has to use heavy machinery every autumn to move snow to fill gaps left from the ice formation's steady retreat.

 “Only five to 10 years ago we didn't need any additional snow from the glacier,” said Balet, director general of Televerbier. 

In spring last year, to save surging fuel and other costs from moving the snow, he opted to cover up 26,900 square feet on the glacier's edge with a thin insulating sheet to try to slow the melting.

 The project – inspired when staff noticed some snow lasted throughout the summer under a tarpaulin-covered snowmobile – worried environmentalists, but Balet deemed it a success.

“Everyone thought it was completely crazy,” he said, standing on the slopes amid a throng of skiers. But the results are fantastic.” 

By September, a snowbank 8.2 feet high had survived under the synthetic insulating sheet that Balet said acted “like a parasol.” This summer, he hopes to repeat the effort, this time covering an area nearly four times as large.


Environmental groups aren't convinced.

Pro Natura, Switzerland's branch of Friends of the Earth, says the country's protected landscapes should be left alone. 

“It simply looks totally ugly,” Baet Jans, Pro Natura's head of policy, said in a telephone interview. “What we ask is that they should go through a legal process if they do that, that they should open it to the public,” he said. 

Televerbier has contested the need to receive official permission to lay down the filament, made by Swiss company Fritz Landolt which also supplied material for a similar project at the Andermatt ski resort last year. 

Balet said the material, which is blue on the bottom and white on top, does not damage the environment and can help slow the effects of temperature increases that some scientists say will eventually melt Europe's Alpine glaciers. 

Pro Natura said Verbier's reasoning was “not very credible”, saying his interests were economic. 

“They want to protect their ski tourism. They want to be able to ski on these glaciers,” Jans said, adding that Verbier and other Swiss resorts were exacerbating global warming by adding parking lots and boosting road traffic in the Alps.

 “This is a funny way to deal with the problem,” he declared.

© Reuters 2006


I have a hardback edition of Boiling Point, signed by you when you were in Olympia.

I always appreciated your work on global warming, and was glad to see your analysis of the politics of the problem, along with your  view of the best  solution.

But right now polls have consistently showed that 65%-75% of the U.S. population understands global warming is a serious problem (though they may not have grasped it’s urgency; though latest polls even suggest that is beginning to sink in.)

It seems to me that current trope among denialists is: “yes human caused  global warming is happening - but on the one hand it is too late to do anything, and even if was not too late, we don’t know how do anything without wrecking the world economy. The thing to do is wait, and do more research to learn how to summon the tooth fairy and then she will solve everything in one swell foop.”

So I’m wondering, given that there are solutions out there, shouldn’t we put more emphasis on the fact that we do have a little time left to avoid the worst consequences if we begin to act now, and that there are  immense numbers of things we can do now without waiting for magic breakthroughs?

Mind you, I think you are making an immense contribution by including anctedotes such as this one. Stories, not statistics are how the public learns. But  maybe it is just as important to tell stories about  people who convert their Priuses to plug-in hybrids, or commerical buildings that operate with 70% less energy than average, just through efficiency means, or the midsize Solectria Sunrise electric car demonstrated in 1997 that had a 240 mile range, got the equivalent of between 90 and 200+ mpg (depending on the type of electric grid used to charge it) and ran at normal highway speeds. (Electric cars, by the way, are quite peppy -  great acceleration, great feel.) We need to tell these stories, not  to spread the idea that the market will magically solve everything, but to emphasize that problem is political not a technical one.